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Month: December 2016

Over-intellectualizing a Toy Elf

Over-intellectualizing a Toy Elf

So, here’s the mistake people are making: they’re putting way too much thought into a toy elf.

For the past couple of years, screeching hordes have been stomping their feet and howling about the damnation that will befall us because parents are giving their kids a toy elf and telling them that if they don’t behave Santa will hate them forever.

Okay, I’ve hyperbole-d enough.

Or have I? Here’s an article that’s pretty close to ground zero for the anti-Elf-on-the-Shelf movement.

And it goes on, such as with this recent over-the-top reaction to Elf on the Shelf.

In fairness, the latter author seems to be joking around at times, but he also seems sincere in his criticisms.

Seriously, people are overthinking the hell out of this.

Many think-pieces have been written about how this is normalizing surveillance and enforcing behaviour. Writers have been complaining that kids are being told that this elf sees them when they’re sleeping, knows when they’re awake, knows when they’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness … wait, that sounds familiar. Where have I heard that?

Oh right, that’s exactly what kids have been told since the days when Thomas Nast was creating illustrations of Santa spying on kids with a telescope and taking notes on behaviour.

I grew up being told that Santa was watching everything I did and collecting data on me to evaluate my worth as a human being. So did everyone who grew up in a Santa-friendly household.

And we turned out okay, didn’t we?

Okay, maybe we didn’t, but if we’re a messed-up world it’s surely not because we’re scared to misbehave.

How is Elf on the Shelf any different? It’s the same thing, only there’s an intermediary. If anything, the message being sent is that Santa can’t actually see everything you do so he has to send an inanimate object to do the spying. That’s actually less scary. If I were a kid and didn’t want Santa to find out about my dirty deeds I’d know exactly what household item to toss into the nearest ravine.

If we’re concerned that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance, here are a few other things we need to toss in the dumpster:

Simon Says, a game teaches kids to accept authoritarianism.
Hide-and-Seek, which normalizes stalking.
Building snowmen, which is a metaphor for genetic manipulation.
Doggie, Doggie, Who’s Got Your Bone, which teaches kids to be petty thieves.
Elmo, who teaches bad grammar.
London Bridges, a game that makes children terrified of travelling by road.
Teddy bears, which normalize keeping bears in captivity.
Santa, because this is a guy who clearly gives some kids better toys than others, so he’s a nightmare for childhood self-esteem. And because he’s a dirty spy and a miner of data.

And the thing is, every one of my silly complaints in the above list is as valid as the complaint that Elf on the Shelf normalizes surveillance.

So, then, what’s the other complaint? That Elf on the Shelf is all about marketing. Should we take a moment to reflect on the history of Santa Claus, the most potent marketing figure in the history of North America? Santa is all about marketing. There’s a reason he sits in the middle of a mall or department store to find out what kids want for Christmas when they’re within earshot of parents with credit cards. There’s a reason why when you watch Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade on TV or in person you see an endless stream of sponsored floats. Santa exists to get you to spend money.

Christmas itself is a massive marketing tool, which is why it has become a secular holiday as much as it is a religious holiday. Christmas is all about buying things and people eat that message up.

Elf on the Shelf is just a clever little marketing idea that worked. There was a book involved — damn, I wish I’d come up with this marketing ploy.

So, is this really about Elf on the Shelf somehow being evil, or is it about Elf on the Shelf being different from “how we did it when we were kids”? I suspect there’s a large helping of the latter at play. How can we have problems with Elf on the Shelf but not have the same problems with Santa Claus?

When it comes down to it, the people freaking out are adults. Are the kids? Do we really think there are kids who are terrified because they are under surveillance by a toy elf who is going to tell Santa when they’re bad? Do we think kids are that fragile?

The kids just want to have fun. This is a game. It’s not damaging them. They are playing. When the game is over, the game is over.

Who are we demonizing when we try to make ourselves look smart by tossing out complaints? Parents. Parents who just want to give their kids a fun addition to the holidays. Do they deserve that? Hell no.

Let’s relax a little. This is a benign bit of holiday fun. Put the cynicism aside, call off the fun police, and let kids and their parents play this simple little game for a few weeks.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

 

Bookcave’s Reviews in Review: The Last-Minute Gift Items You’ve Been Looking For (For All Ages!)

Bookcave’s Reviews in Review: The Last-Minute Gift Items You’ve Been Looking For (For All Ages!)

 

It’s the holiday season, with many gift-giving opportunities rearing their heads in the coming days and weeks, so many people are preparing their “best of” lists and gift recommendations. I’m going to do something a little different. Yep, recommendations, but I’m going to take every book we’ve reviewed on Bookcave (easier than it sounds since we’ve only been up for a few weeks) and tell you which people they are ideally suited for. If you can’t find a book for that hard-to-buy-for person, it’s because we haven’t reviewed it yet.

Some of the books cross over nicely to “adult” fiction, so I’ve included recommendations for anyone who is buying for adult friends and relatives. (That is, adult friends and relatives who don’t typically read kids’ books.)

Links to Bookcave’s reviews are at the bottom of each recommendation.

 

The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

You know who will love this? Your friend who likes those mysteries where you marvel at the special skill or brilliance of the detective. A Sherlock fan? That’s a good target recipient. The publisher sets the age as 10-14, which is a broad range, and I’d lean towards the older end of that if buying for a young person (12+). But there really need not be an upper age on this one as it’s more than satisfying for any reader of adult mysteries. (I published adult mysteries for many years, so I bring a familiarity with the genre to the table.)

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

Mission Mumbai by Mahtab Narsimhan

This is a fun look at some of the differences between North American and Indian culture, so it’s great for any young person with an interest in learning about other countries and cultures, or for a person familiar with India and Mumbai, who will get a kick out of seeing the mishaps that sometimes occur when cultures collide. The publisher set an age range of 8-12 and I think that works well for this book, though I might narrow it slightly to 9-11.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

 

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

It would be underselling this book to simply say it’s great for fans of dystopian fiction, though it certainly is great for them. But it’s perfect for people who like speculative fiction that is intelligent, and that takes you places beyond the book. My review focused on artificial intelligence, but I could have written many pages about identity, diversity, sexuality, politics, environment, and more. It’s also a page-turner, though, so you shouldn’t worry about it being bogged down in science and philosophy. The publisher sets an age range of 14 and up and that works for me. You can go up as far as you want.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

Masterminds by Gordon Korman

Lots of action, lots of fun, lots of mystery. Your friend or young person who likes stories about isolated little towns with big mysteries should like this. The reading age for the book could drift a little higher, but 8-12 is a solid target. Korman’s been around for a long time despite being relatively young (he famously wrote his first novel when he was twelve, of course); that makes anything he writes a gift option for that adult friend of yours who grew up with Bruno and Boots and Bugs Potter but hasn’t read anything by Korman since the eighties — they’ll enjoy the visit from an old friend.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

Young Man with Camera by Emil Sher

A young person with an interest in photography or the visual arts will find inspiration in this book. There’s a lot of heart to this book, too, and the empathetic reader with a social conscience will find it gripping. The core gifting target would be early teens, who are the clear audience for the book. (The publisher lists it for ages 12+.)

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

Missing Nimama, written by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale

Listed by the publisher for readers 8+, and that “+” is appropriate, because there really should be no upper age for this book. Though it is technically a children’s picture book and is packaged as such, the writing and illustrations will be appreciated by adults. It’s a gut-wrenching story about a daughter and her mother, who is one of the missing and murdered Indigenous women in the ongoing crisis. Parents might want to read the book before deciding whether to give it to young children, as it is a rather heavy topic and you’ll want to be prepared for the potential emotional responses. I’m of the opinion that young people are stronger than we often give them credit for and can handle tough subject matter, but if I’m making a recommendation I don’t want a parent to get upset with me. So, give it a read, then give it to your young person when you realize it’s a book they really should read.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

I Am Not a Number, written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, illustrated by Gillian Newland

This is another hard-hitting book for young readers, and it takes us inside a residential school. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that serves as such an effective primer on the history and experience of residential schools. It will appall rather than traumatize, so parents might not need to be as cautious about giving it to younger readers (the age range from the publisher is 7 to 11). It’s a great gift for the socially conscious or those with a specific interest in First Nations issues.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

 

 

The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie

The Mask That Sang is another book with a strong Indigenous theme, though this book focuses less on a specific issue and more on a page-turning story that introduces readers to Indigenous themes. Residential schools ultimately play a significant role in the background of key characters, but along the way we learn about Orenda, Iroquois false-face masks, and some of the racism directed towards one of the characters. It’s good for readers with an interest in Indigenous culture. It should also appeal to readers who like stories with elements of magic. The publisher sets the age range as 9-13, and I’d stick with that range in gifting the book.

See Bookcave’s review.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Cave Notes, December 16, 2016

Cave Notes, December 16, 2016

We’re getting deep into holiday season now, so I’m lining up some holiday-themed content for the coming days. For now, though, let’s take a look that the week that was.

On Monday I decided to take on an unnamed major literary award that recently updated its guidelines to exclude YA novels from eligibility. I countered their elitism with some elitism of my own, suggesting that they probably don’t know much about YA.

Holy snark!

Well, I happen to think it’s well-placed snark, and as I say in my article, the line between YA and adult fiction is often blurry, and many books that weren’t actually written as YA are categorized as such purely for marketing purposes. Thus, this award’s exclusion of YA unfairly gives the cold shoulder to authors who have created works of literary merit equal to those that are considered “eligible.”

And our weekly review was of a Second Story Press title — the second week in a row we’ve reviewed a book from Second Story. And while last week’s review was of a book with residential schools as a backdrop, this week’s review of I Am Not a Number took us deep into a residential school. The book is incredibly well done, and one I’d recommend for anyone looking to gain an understanding of this dark chapter in Canadian history.

A reminder: Bookcave is seeking writers for when we launch phase 2 of the site in the coming months. Our motto seems to have become “we can’t pay a lot, but we will pay.” If you write something, you deserve to get paid for it. I’m the only one who provides site content for free. So, contact me at barry@bookcave.ca if you have ideas for non-fiction articles that you think would be of interest to the Canadian kidlit community. (And see our call for writers for further details.)

Finally, want to support Bookcave without spending a penny? When you see an article you like, share it on social media. Page views are very important to us and the more page views we get, the easier it will be to grow the site.

I have a second “finally,” and that’s for anyone who wants to spend pennies to support the site. We have a Patreon campaign. As I promise every time I bring this up, all money Bookcave receives from Patreon will be used to pay outside contributors for their work. No Patreon money will go into my pocket. This site exists to serve the Canadian kidlit community.

Those are your Cave Notes for this week. Stop by on Sunday for Outside the Cave, in which we’ll do our weekly look at things we’ve read on other sites and blogs around the net.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: I Am Not a Number

Review: I Am Not a Number

IANAN_cover.inddI Am Not a Number
Written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer
Illustrated by Gillian Newland
32 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 7-11

 

 

Good presses and good authors don’t shy away from heavy subject matter. For the second week in a row, we’re reviewing a book from Second Story Press that covers the subject of Canada’s residential schools.

I Am Not a Number brings the full force of this dark subject. Author Jenny Kay Dupuis (who worked with co-author Kathy Kacer on this book) has based the story on that of her grandmother, Irene, who we see taken from her family and put in a residential school.

This, in itself, is horrifying; during Canada’s shameful history of residential schools, Indigenous families were required by law to allow the government to take their children and place them in schools far away from their homes to be assimilated into “Canadian” culture. Readers learning of this for the first time will find it astounding.

But it doesn’t stop there, and we see Irene punished at school for speaking her own language — she’s told she’s not allowed to speak anything other than English. Her hair is cut and she is told her Indigenous heritage is meaningless. And she is not even allowed to keep her own name — she is given a number.

The book sugarcoats nothing. The darkness of this chapter in Canadian history is present throughout, and a historical note at the end of the book makes clear that Irene’s story was not unique. But rather than rely solely on bleakness to carry the story, the authors allow for optimism in the form of Irene’s silent defiance. Though she’s told she has to forget her name, she refuses to do so, telling herself that she is not a number, and recalling her mother’s final words to her before she was taken away: “Never forget who you are.” This provides the story arc that turns Irene’s story into one of triumph on the final pages.

Second Story Press is one of Canada’s finest independent presses, and their commitment to telling the uncomfortable history of Canada’s relationship with the land’s Indigenous people is among the many commendable things they do. The disgrace of the residential schools system is something every Canadian should be familiar with and Second Story, along with authors Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer, and illustrator Gillian Newland, have provided a superb book that will tell this necessary story to readers at a young age.

Review by Barry Jowett

There’s Something in the Air, and It’s a Nose

There’s Something in the Air, and It’s a Nose

Recently, one of the major literary awards released new submission guidelines. While they said their goal was to make sure deserving titles get their due, really, the guidelines were designed to reduce the number of submissions they get, meaning that some deserving titles might not get submitted. This award happens to have a larger than normal jury, and a very well-paid jury at that. So, I could go on about privilege and how people should earn their pay, etc. … except that this site is about kids’ books and the award in question is not specifically for kids’ books.

In fact, they made it clear that they don’t want to see kids’ books, and that’s what I’m going to go on about. One of their new guidelines says young adult novels are ineligible.

Now, let’s be fair: a lot of YA is written specifically for the young readers’ market; often YA is written with school curriculum in mind, too. So, there is some logic to excluding books that are for a specific and narrow market rather than the general population.

But anyone with any familiarity with YA knows that there are many YA novels that were not, in fact, written for young readers. It’s not uncommon for a book to be written as “literary fiction” only to have an agent or publisher decide to market it to young readers. And why not? It’s easier to sell books for young readers than it is to sell adult literary fiction.

So, this award is telling people that such books aren’t literature because, after they were written, someone decided there was a good marketing opportunity?

The line between adult fiction and young adult fiction is often blurry. I have published several novels as YA that could easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. I defy you to read Christine Walde’s Burning from the Inside, Barbara Radecky’s The Darkhouse, or anything by C.K. Kelly Martin and tell me what, aside from the age of the characters, distinguishes these novels from “adult literary fiction.” And these books are not unique; there are many other books for young readers that are of such literary merit that they are read by adults and should be considered for “adult” awards.

Likewise, “adult” novels are frequently cross-marketed to young readers. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, for example, was sold as both adult fiction and young adult fiction; did it become ineligible for awards as a result? Should it have?

Imagine if The Catcher in the Rye were published today. I promise you, there’s at least a 90% chance (if not complete certainty) that it would be marketed as young adult fiction. And if you think there is something about it that makes it different from a lot of YA that is published, you haven’t read a lot of YA.

Naysayers will read this and say, “Of course he thinks that — he’s a children’s book publisher and probably doesn’t know much about literary fiction.” So, I’ll remind those people that I also spent many years acquiring and editing adult literary fiction, including a number of books nominated for such awards as the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, etc. It’s far from a foreign subject to me.

Why do I care? In part, I suppose, I get tired of people who know nothing about YA looking down their noses at YA — and let’s face it, that’s what’s going on here. But I care, too, because there are many YA authors who produce superb works of high literary merit, and they are being denied proper recognition because someone in an ivory tower doesn’t like a certain marketing tag.

The right step for the award in question was not to say YA titles are ineligible; it was, rather, to ask publishers to use their discretion and ensure any YA titles being submitted qualify as works of literary merit for audiences of all ages. They didn’t do that, unfortunately, and the blanket “no-YA” policy demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the category they have chosen to dismiss.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Outside the Cave, December 11, 2016

Outside the Cave, December 11, 2016

Happy Sunday, and welcome to this week’s Outside the Cave!

As we do every Sunday, Bookcave has gathered some of what we’ve been reading on the web this week about kids’ books, and books in general, and put them all in one post for your link-clicking pleasure.

The folks at 49th Shelf are running their annual book giveaway — $500 in books up for grabs, but the deadline is tomorrow, so … get on it! This year they’re increasing their awesomeness by giving away $250 worth of books to a lucky winner, and an additional $250 worth of books to a school library in the winner’s community. School libraries are horrifically underfunded, and this contest hopes to draw attention for the need for good school libraries, and teacher-librarians.

Still with 49th Shelf, they’ve published their annual list of the best picture books of 2016.

Melville House’s fantastic blog took a look at the controversy surrounding the same book that Bookcave skewered last week. Melville House is decidedly more sympathetic and even defensive on “free speech” grounds, though they backed off their earlier headline that called people like me “idiots.” (They didn’t change the URL, though.) Their well-meaning blog post completely ignores the most offensive of the covers, and they refer to this as “book banning,” which it is not. (The book has not been “banned” anywhere. And I, personally, never called for it to be banned. On the contrary, I argued that Abrams had the right to publish it … but they shouldn’t, because of, ya know, that racism stuff.) These quibbles aside, I love Melville House and recommend getting their take on this matter.

Debbie Ohi has a guest post on Joyce Grant’s Get Kids Reading site in which she reviews the book and board game combo of Finding Gossamyr and Arcane Academy. This is a brilliant idea that I wish I’d thought of — a great way to get kids reading (provided you can get them to play board games, of course). It’s something to keep in mind if you happen to be celebrating any major gift-giving holidays this month, particularly if I’m on your list.

Speaking of gift-giving, if you’re looking for a gift for someone with an interest in LGBTQ genre YA, but have had trouble finding anything, Amy Rose Capetta has you covered with a guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations blog.

Monica Friedman has an article on Book Riot about children’s books and their ability to teach compassion. Notable about her take is not that she talks about what the books can teach children and young adults, but what she, as an adult, takes from them.

That’s a wrap for this week. Enjoy your Sunday reading!

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Cave Notes, December 9, 2016

Cave Notes, December 9, 2016

It’s Friday! And that means we get to look back at the week that was on Bookcave.

Those of you who have yet to follow Bookcave on Twitter or Facebook missed my incessant whining about my cold. In my defence, it was a really bad cold. But somehow I managed to get all this week’s content in for the site.

On Monday I put on my grouchy pants and gave my thoughts on the Bad Little Children’s Books fiasco. And just so we’re clear, I have nothing against satire, but this book failed as satire and without the satire, the racist jokes were simply racist. About two hours after I posted the article, the publisher announced that they were ceasing publication of the book. (I’d take credit for changing their minds, except the press release actually went out before my article was posted. Dang.) Unfortunately, they continued blaming others and, as you can see in my updates at the bottom of the article, it turns out they didn’t really cease publication after all, or at least, not in the way they were trying to lead us to believe.

On Wednesday I posted nothing. Usually I post a review on Wednesdays, but this week’s initial draft of my review was written while I was in a Neo Citran haze and when I reviewed it prior to posting I decided I couldn’t foist it upon you. So, I rewrote it that night and I think the revised version does justice to a very good book.

That book is The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie. In my review I talk about how Currie is able to educate without forcing information into the narrative, and the result is an excellent and thoughtful page-turner. It was published by the good people at Second Story Press, who do fantastic work in a number of areas, including diversity, and this book was one of two winners of their Aboriginal Writing Contest.

And I’ll remind everyone that last week we posted a call for writers, particularly those with ideas for articles they’d like to contribute as we launch phase 2 of Bookcave in February. Thank you to those who have been in touch so far. Bonus news: I’ve figured out how to set up my email properly on my home computer, so I can actually reply without having to fuss with my phone email. (This means I can reply more quickly!) You see, I haven’t actually set up my own email since 2008, so mistakes were made.

Coming up next week on Bookcave: On Sunday I’ll have our weekly Outside the Cave, in which I highlight some of our favourite articles and blog posts from around the web. During the week I’ll have a column about something else that annoyed me, and it has to do with how some people look down their noses at YA. And I’m deciding between reviews of a couple of books — one is a picture book, the other is the second in a series that I have reviewed before.

Finally, I’ll remind everyone that one of the best ways to support the site is to share our posts and reviews on Twitter and Facebook — when you read something you like, of course. Don’t share our crap content! When you share, we get more page views, and page views are a big deal to Bookcave as we gear up for phase 2 and phase 3 of the site’s growth.

There’s also another way to support us, and that brings us to “you can stop reading if you don’t like the money talk” time. We have a Patreon campaign, which is really a sort of subscription to our forthcoming e-journal. As I say on the campaign page, I promise that all money supported through Patreon will be used to pay outside contributors to write for the site. No Patreon dollars will go into my pocket. This site doesn’t exist for me to make money or even for my ego. This site exists to support the Canadian kidlit community.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Review: The Mask That Sang

Review: The Mask That Sang

MaskThatSang_fullcover.inddThe Mask That Sang
by Susan Currie
192 pages
Second Story Press
Ages 9-13

 

 

 

One of the challenges writers are often faced with when writing for young readers is how to introduce a subject without creating a book that feels like a teaching tool. In The Mask That Sang, Susan Currie is up to the challenge.

We’re introduced to Cass, a twelve-year-old living with her single mother. Cass’s mom, we soon learn, was abandoned as a newborn by her birth mother. She’s carried bitterness about this her entire life — so much so that when a lawyer tracks her down and informs her that her birth mother has left her her life savings and her house, Cass’s mom wants no part of either.

Cass, though, wants a new home away from the bullies at her current school. But what’s more, she wants the connection to her family’s past that her mother is determined to run away from.

Many authors would fall into the trap of overexplaining a theme, but Currie does not spell out that the mother is shutting out the past and the daughter is seeking it. It’s a theme that’s there for readers to explore, but it’s not shoved down their throats. Instead, she keeps the plot moving forward.

When Cass’s mother finally relents and they move to the new house, Cass finds more “past” than she was expecting. Cass hears singing in her head, and it draws her to a dresser containing an Iroquois false-face mask. Cass feels an immediate connection to the mask — the reasons for which we learn towards the end of the book (though most readers will see that coming, particularly if they’ve read the author bio and seen that there’s a touch of autobiography woven into the story).

When Cass’s mother sells the mask to a pawn shop, Cass begins having dreams that give cryptic clues to the mask’s location. But Cass will need help deciphering the clues, and she gets that help from Degan, a classmate who is from the Cayuga nation and knows something of the history of false-face masks.

After failing to buy back the mask themselves, they learn the mask was bought by someone they’d rather not have to deal with — Ellis, a school bully who, among other things, has taunted Degan about his Indigenous heritage. This is a clever detail for the author to include. The sale of false-face masks to non-Indigenous persons is a contentious issue — the masks are sacred, after all. Currie doesn’t harp on this detail or even exploit it — she leaves as a nugget for readers who have explored beyond the book.

At this point I need to dance around spoilers, so without saying why, I’ll say that residential schools, a shameful part of Canada’s history, turn out to be significant in the lives of the characters. And again, Currie introduces this information without overplaying it.

The Mask That Sang is fast-paced and magical. There’s a simple story, but one that has richness and complexity behind and beyond the text. Readers simply looking for a lively read will be satisfied, while anyone with an interest in the history and the present of Indigenous peoples in Canada will find inspiring starting points.

 

Review by Barry Jowett

When a Publisher Decides to Make Racism Okay Again

When a Publisher Decides to Make Racism Okay Again

Abrams Books has always seemed like a relatively benign press. In fact, they have done some good things. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for example. And their STEM books, such as Rosie Revere: Engineer. If we thought about Abrams, it was in a good way.

Then they apparently lost their minds, because they thought it would be hilarious to publish a book called Bad Little Children’s Books, which, by Abrams’ own admission, “presents a collection patently offensive parodies of children’s book covers.” You can see these covers here. (That article is, admittedly, one sided, but I’m okay with that as it’s the side I agree with.) Some of the mock covers, one could argue, are just fun irreverence, while others are in bad taste. But some are outright racist.

Take, for example, the cover that jokes about acquiring smallpox from a Navajo blanket.

Or the cover for a book about rockets and missiles of the Islamic State.

And apparently those two examples of racist jokes weren’t enough, because there is also a cover that equates burkas with terrorism: a burka-wearer is shown bringing a gift-wrapped box that is ticking.

To the surprise of no one except, apparently, Abrams, there has been outrage.

Abrams has tried to excuse their misstep. Actually, that’s not accurate: they’ve played victim and pretended they’ve done nothing wrong and that bad people have vilified them.

They’ve claimed that the jokes are not “racist,” they’re “satire,” and have accused critics of “censorship.”

Well, first of all, they don’t know what “satire” is. “Satire” is used to mock the people you’re satirizing. And if that’s what these fake covers were doing, Abrams might have an argument. That’s not the case, however. They simply present the jokes. “Satire” isn’t a word you attach to racist jokes to make them okay. If you do satire properly, then the targets of your satire feel the burn. The supposed targets of this “satire,” Abrams wants us to believe, are racists. Now, let’s consider this: do you think racists will look at these jokes and feel the sting of satire, or will they find them funny? The answer is obvious, and that’s why Bad Little Children’s Books is, at best, a complete failure as satire, or, at worst, not satire at all.

These books do nothing to mock racists. Rather, they send a message: “let’s make racism funny again.” It’s like Abrams thinks the jokes aren’t racist if they say the author didn’t really mean them.

Second of all, no one is asking Abrams to “censor” anything. They’re asking Abrams to act ethically. Apparently this is too difficult for Abrams, which is why they have doubled-down and why they’ve attacked their critics. Their defence didn’t even come with an apology for offending anyone. Rather, they just insisted they are right and everyone else is wrong and that if we don’t get it, we’re at fault.

But here, again, Abrams has gone to a problematic word: “censorship.” They want us to believe that doing the right thing would be the “bad thing,” because censorship is a “bad thing.” But is pulling the book a bad thing that needs the ugly “censorship” label? Books get pulled for other reasons. If a book is libelous, containing factual inaccuracies about a person, would Abrams say, “nah, we’ll keep it in print because to do otherwise is censorship”? If a book violates child pornography laws, would they cry “censorship”? I would hope not. While rare, books do get recalled and pulped if a serious wrong has been done. I would qualify racism as a serious wrong.

“Censorship” is just a convenient word, a weapon-word, that is used to attack the critics. It’s an attempt to re-categorize valid criticisms under a negative label. It’s rhetoric.

If they choose to keep the book in print, that’s their right. But it is also the right of myself and others to judge them for it. And I will.

Tellingly, Abrams has played the PC card by calling the book “politically incorrect.” People who accuse others of political correctness do so in order to excuse poor behaviour. It’s a dismissive term that, again, tries to put the blame on the critic and make the offending party out to be a victim.

Abrams could have responded responsibly. Instead they used these weapon-words to cast those who disagree with them in a negative light.

You have to wonder what was going through their heads when they decided to go ahead with the book. And the more you wonder, the harder it is to side with Abrams.

Who did they think the market for the book was? Who did they think would find this funny? Did they think, for example, Muslims would find the ticking-bomb cover funny and buy the book? Of course not. So … shouldn’t that have told them something? I mean, Muslims are at the core of the joke … so if they’re excluded from the target market — as they would have to be — it’s a joke about Muslims for non-Muslims. Abrams doesn’t see the problem with that?

They either thought about the Muslim market and didn’t give a damn what Muslims thought, or they didn’t think about the Muslim market at all. It’s the same deal when it comes to indigenous persons and the small-pox-blanket book. I can’t imagine Abrams thought Navajo book-buyers would look at that cover and say “ha ha, a painful part of my people’s history is really funny.”

So, the only options for describing Abrams’ behaviour would seem to be cultural insensitivity, a tolerance of racism, or plain stupidity. I suppose “all of the above” is also a possibility. But “satire”? Nonsense.

Legally, the book may not qualify as hate literature, so they can publish it. Freedom of speech allows them to do so. But freedom of speech comes with responsibility. Sadly, Abrams has opted to be irresponsible. They’ve decided that the rights of people like them to laugh at the stereotypes of others is the only valid consideration.

 

UPDATE: Shortly after this column was posted, it was announced that Abrams had decided to cease publication after all. And I was prepared to pat them on the back for it, until I read their statement: “We have been disheartened by calls to censor the book and to stifle the author’s right to express his artistic vision by people we would expect to promote those basic fundamental rights and freedoms. However, faced with the misperceived message of the book, we are respecting the author’s request.” So, instead of the appropriate mea culpa, they continue to blame and attack the critics. Another own-goal. At least the author came to his senses. The publisher continues to sing the wrong song.

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72199-under-fire-abrams-to-stop-publishing-bad-little-children-s-books.html

 

UPDATE 2: Well, Abrams had to clarify, because it turns out that they went to weasle-words when they said they would “cease publishing” the book. What they really meant was that they are not going to reprint. But the book is still available. They still carry it and distribute it. I’ve been in publishing for more than two decades, and I am confident the original wording was carefully chosen to mislead.

 

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson

Outside the Cave, December 4, 2016

Outside the Cave, December 4, 2016

Through the haze of a bad cold, I have managed to show up with this week’s Outside the Cave. And they say there are no heroes anymore.

Outside the Cave is our weekly look around the web to see what other sites and blogs are writing about kidlit, Canadian kidlit, or books in general. Bookcave encourages you to frequent as many of these sites as possible.

Over at Clockwise Press (one of my favourite presses, by the way), they’re still buzzing about Melanie Florence and François Thisdale’s big TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award win, and have posted a photographic journey through the evening. It includes a group photo of the Carlu reception, so attendees can look for themselves. (Sadly, I don’t appear to be anywhere in sight, so I must have already staggered out the door by this point. So much for having a “find Barry” contest.)

Publishers Weekly has an article highlighting some of the best transgender kidlit. The world is slowly getting better, one step at a time, and it was only a short while ago that transgender kidlit would be hard to find. It’s still not easy to find, but we’ve come a long way.

Of course, coming a long way doesn’t mean there aren’t a few knuckledraggers around, and the folks at Abrams, who have produced a lot of good books over the years including many good books for kids, dropped the ball in a huge way when they decided racism is funny. Abrams then doubled-down and played the victim card, accusing their critics of “censorship,” because the imprints at Abrams apparently do not publish dictionaries and were unable to look up what “censorship” actually means. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that this will be the subject of an upcoming column, so Abrams can look forward to seeing what my middle finger looks like in print.

Moving on from the clueless to people who I have a lot of respect for, Megan Crewe recently posted this outstanding primer, Writing with Sensitivity 101. I strongly recommend this link to anyone who writes, edits, or publishes books for young readers. Part of what I like about it is not just that it tackles one of the most important issues in writing today, but that it doesn’t “teach” so much as it encourages learning and understanding. Multiple points of view are given on many of the topics, and we are urged to “keep in mind that these issues are complex and so are the individual responses to them. There is rarely one absolute ‘right’ answer, only different opinions on what is right. Ultimately the best we can do is to listen widely to many different voices, and make our own decision about what feels right for us within that context.” That’s really the most important thing — listening to a variety of voices.

Continuing to wash the stink of the Abrams fiasco off of us, Open Book has posted about books that are actually funny in “Kid Lit Can: What’s So Funny About Kids’ Books?”

Last week I confessed that I have yet to read Martine Leavitt’s Calvin, and you’ll be happy to know that I’ve picked up a copy of the GG-winning YA novel and will read it in the near future. You’ll be even happier to know that 49th Shelf has a good interview with Leavitt.

I only recently came across Deborah Kalb’s Book Q&A’s, and it’s a site I recommend bookmarking. Bookcave’s focus is Canadian kidlit, so I’ll direct you to a couple of recent Canadian interviewees, Kari-Lynn Winters and David Skuy.

If you live in Toronto and were able to attend the Santa Claus Parade a couple of weeks ago, you may have spotted a modern-day classic children’s book on the Indigo float. Helaine Becker has a photo of the giant version of Porcupine in a Pine Tree on her blog.

School Library Journal is preaching to the converted (and so am I by linking it here), but it bears repeating that school librarians are not just valuable, but can make a major difference in student achievement.

Finally, we’ll stick with School Library Journal because they’ve got an article on a program that has elementary and middle school students read fiction and develop engineering projects based on what they’ve read, and now I want to go back to elementary or middle school because I kinda love this.

Those are this week’s Sunday reads. I hope to have a column up tomorrow (gee, I wonder what it will be about?), but I am struggling with this cold and am about to down some Neo-Citran, so might be delayed. Bear with me! I’ll have that, plus a review, coming up this week.

Barry Jowett
Head Caveperson